Monday 23 September 2019

Paddy Agnew: 'Two countries, two constitutional crises, two different outcomes'

The Italian president has powers which are not available to Queen Elizabeth in the UK, writes Paddy Agnew

Matteo Salvini speaks at a rally near Padua last week. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Matteo Salvini speaks at a rally near Padua last week. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Paddy Agnew

Last week was a tale of two constitutional crises, one in the UK and one in Italy. While British prime minister Boris Johnson was announcing the latest twist in the Brexit saga, Italy at the very same moment was grappling with its own government crisis.

The striking constitutional difference between the two crises is that where the Queen appeared to have little or no powers of intervention, curiously the Italian president, in contrast, was able to radically shape the outcome of his crisis - and not for the first time.

For years, foreign commentators, especially British ones, have inevitably ridiculed the revolving-door nature of Italian politics, with governments seeming to come and go every three weeks.

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Yet, after last week, you could argue Italy, thanks to its written constitution, is fundamentally better positioned to deal with a parliamentary-government-constitutional crisis than the UK. Put simply, the Italian constitution grants the president those very prerogatives which seem to be denied to the British monarch.

When League leader, deputy prime minister and minister of the interior Matteo Salvini called a vote of no confidence in his own government (a Five Star/League coalition led by law professor Giuseppe Conte) early in August, he was hoping to provoke a government crisis which would lead to a general election. That way, he would cash in on favourable opinion polls.

At the time, he was registering a 51pc approval rating, while at last March's European elections, the League emerged as the strongest party in the land with a 34pc vote, double what it received at the March 2018 general election.

Salvini's savvy use of social media, his nous for the winning photo-op and, above all, his hard-talking populist, anti-immigrant rhetoric had apparently made him the strongest politician in Italy.

His plan to engineer an early election might have worked had Italian president Sergio Mattarella not invoked his constitutional powers which, among other things, see him entitled to: appoint the prime minister and his cabinet ministers (on the advice of the prime minister; receive the resignation of a government; and dissolve parliament, call elections and fix the date for the first meeting of the new chambers.

The ball fell into Mattarella's court when prime minister Conte called Salvini's bluff in the wake of a dramatic parliamentary session last week. Standing beside the seated Salvini on the government benches, Conte looked for all the world like a disappointed headmaster who had to scold his senior prefect. Salvini, he said, had put "both his own interests and those of his party" before those of the country. Furthermore, he said, it was simply "irresponsible" to call an election every year.

When Salvini, sensing things were not going to plan in the face of an unexpectedly steely attack from a hitherto docile prime minister, then withdrew his no-confidence motion, Conte acted quickly to prompt a government crisis by offering his own resignation to the president. At which point, the president gave Italy's main political parties four days to form a new government which would avoid an early general election only 18 months after the last one.

When the Five Star Movement then found a new dance partner, in the shape of the Democratic Party, president Mattarella reappointed Conte to the job from which he had resigned just a week earlier. In so doing, he was offering a heavy endorsement to a professor prime minister who has no party behind him and who, until 17 months ago, was happily engaged in teaching law in Florence.

Conte is currently putting together his own government, a Five Star/Democratic Party coalition as opposed to the previous Five Star/League coalition. This new government is far from up and running and there could be many a slip further down the road but, as of now, the new government is expected to be sworn into office by the middle of the coming week.

For the time being, though, president Mattarella has headed off the far-right populist hordes at the canyon.

Which, frankly, is a lot more than Queen Elizabeth was able to do when faced in Balmoral with similar far-right forces in the shape of Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg.

Yet what do the European partners make of the most recent Brexit developments? One senior Brussels-based EU insider expressed a growing sense of frustration and bewilderment, telling the Sunday Independent: "One thing needs to be clear. Boris Johnson's prorogation may be a poker hand... but the EU is not bluffing. Is Boris?"

That same insider points out that it has been clear for some time now that "the Brits want to go all the way", so perhaps they should just get on with it.

Or as Professor Pauline Schnapper of the Sorbonne in Paris puts it in a recent book, Where is the UK Headed? Brexit and Beyond: "No one can say that the EU is stopping the United Kingdom from leaving. Emmanuel Macron and his ministers have all said that we have to respect the democratic will of the British people. They can leave but they have to pay the bill..."

Inevitably, Johnson's request to the Queen, calling for the infamous prorogation of "the mother of all parliaments", received a very negative press last week from our European neighbours. La Libre Belgique called the move "Johnson's dangerous coup", Dutch daily De Volkskrant called it "Johnson's power grab", Spain's El Pais suggested Johnson was "playing dirty", while the French left-wing paper Liberation more prosaically ran with the headline "Brexit, Harder and Harder".

One of the of the most commonly repeated observations across the European media concerned "the inescapable paradox that a man who has arrived at the head of the British government using rhetoric about defending the essence of Britishness should resort to a trick that goes directly against the very principles that characterise British democracy" (El Pais).

Yet, when the astonishment at this "incredible English coup" (Italy's La Repubblica) subsides, many observers have asked a basic question. What is Johnson's game? Even if he has famously said the UK will leave the EU with "no ifs, no buts" on October 31, not everyone believes him.

One senator in the Five Star Protest movement last week told the Sunday Independent: "This is clearly a bluff, a threat. Johnson does not want a no-deal, does he? No one could be that mad."

Don't count on it, senator. Former Italian ambassador Sergio Romano, in a comment piece in Corriere Della Sera, outlined the suspicions of many when he wrote: "The views of the British prime minister on the European Union are not much different from those of Marine Le Pen, of Viktor Orban and the other Visegrad leaders. Johnson believes he has another card in his hand, one which he will try to play at the European Council summit on October 17, when his strategy will once again be aimed at dividing the European Union, as London has succeeded in doing on other occasions."

If that is the strategy, Brussels insiders argue that it will not work. Five Star Euro MEP Fabio Massimo Castaldo told us: "Faced with an epoch-making change like Brexit, European unity is absolutely essential. It is imperative that diplomatic efforts, aimed at preventing the potentially catastrophic impact of a no-deal exit, be pursued right to the very end so that the Northern Ireland peace process is in no way jeopardised."

Many suspect Johnson may believe he can "push a lot harder now because a lot of leading political figures have just had enough", but if thinks that, he is wrong, they add.

There is no sign of the united 27-country front disintegrating. Most European partners would feel that "there is no mileage to be gained from granting any more concessions".

The story is unchanged and unchanging. For the EU to shift position, the UK "would have to come up with something really innovative", specifically in relation to the backstop.

Yet, in the last three years, "the UK has come up with nothing other than words".

And onto the next chapter of the Brexit saga...

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